Gene Logsdon: Nothing New About Robot Tractors


The Contrary Farmer

With all the talk about robotic farming and robotic everything else, I like to tell how one of my many uncles, on my mother’s (Rall) side of the family, invented a self-driving tractor back in the 1940s. Uncle Lawrence was plowing with his tractor, a Ford 8N, I think, that had a wide front end. He noticed that with one front wheel and one back wheel in the furrow, the plow sort of held the tractor against the side of the furrow and he did not have to do much guiding except to turn around when he came to the end of the field. He thought about how nice it would be to have a field with no ends. Well, riddle me a riddle, how could you manage that? With a round field, of course. Those were the days well before western plains farmers resorted to circle irrigators and planting rigs but since the field where my uncle was plowing was quite a large, fenceless area for those times, he decided to see what would happen. He struck a circle with the plow in the center of the field and round and round he went. Moving along that way, the plow held the tractor in the furrow even more firmly. Finally, Uncle worked up enough nerve to get off the tractor completely, stand by his pickup in case something went awry, and whoop with laughter. Though but a child, I remember that awesome sight of a Ford tractor doing what Mr. Ford never intended it to do. Plowing this way, of course, resulted in quite a mess. The outer corners of the field and the center had to be plowed or disked separately.

Grandfather Rall was still in charge if I remember correctly and he put an end to robot farming for the time being.

After I told that story in my local newspaper column, another uncle, Maury, on my father’s side of the family, called to tell me how Grandfather Logsdon invented a robotic lawnmower. Their home farm had a large, grassed barnyard and Grandpaw was tired of mowing it conventionally. So he stuck of post in the center of the yard, tied a rope to it and the other end to his motorized lawn mower out at the edge of the grass. Sure enough the mower went round and round as the rope wound around the post, doing a fairly creditable job of mowing while Grandfather sat in the shade and cackled in glee.

He also apparently made history with another feat of robotic tractoring that Uncle Maury swears he observed with his own eyes. The field north of the barn was a fairly long one and it seemed to take forever to make a round with their old lumbering wide front end tractor. Maury can’t remember if it were their early Fordson or Wallace but Grandpaw had noticed that it would stay in the furrow too when plowing. He figured out that he could let the slow-moving tractor and plow crawl along on its own while he drove the horses pulling a disk over the plowed surface nearby. The horses made it to the end of the field before the tractor, so he merely had to stop them, dash over and board the tractor as it drew near the end of the furrow, turn it around and let it go back across the field while he dashed back to the horses, disked his way across the field, stopped again to turn the tractor around and so forth.

None of this should surprise us. After all, the first robotic car was in use many long years ago and was especially handy if you fell asleep on your way home from carousing too long in town. It was called the horse and buggy.

P.S. My publisher wants me to ask you, if anyone is so disposed, to post something nice about my new book, Gene Everlasting, on Amazon as you have so graciously done on this website. I think it would be too self-promoting for me to buttonhole any of you personally this way, so I’ll just say, in a general sort of way, that if you are moved to do that, we’d be most grateful.